I’m back in Dumaguete after a brief visit to Manila, and everything still feels surreal. And wonderful. All at the same time. I know why. Please permit me in this space to celebrate a win. Because there are four reasons why winning the Nick Joaquin Literary Award means so much to me.
First: When I was in freshman year high school and barely knew anything about writing [or Philippine literature for that matter], I discovered Nick Joaquin’s iconic short story “May Day Eve” bundled in one of those mimeographed handouts my older brothers who were in college would regularly bring home and scatter around the house. [That’s also how I discovered Edilberto Tiempo and Edith Tiempo — and I read and loved their works without quite knowing who they were.] Joaquin’s style in “May Day Eve” astonished me, and made me see the possibilities of a simple story made more astonishing because of the underlying craft involved. I remember telling myself, “So, you can actually write a story like this…,” and I remember attempting to write a story exactly like it, with all the twists and turns of time and the human heart. In retrospect, that attempt to copy Joaquin was a foolhardy idea — my juvenile story was predictably bad — but if beginning to write is all about mimicking your idols until you find your own voice, then with my choice of Nick Joaquin, I was certainly off to a good start.
Second: When I began writing and publishing my stories for real in the early 2000s, Nick Joaquin was still literary editor of Philippines Graphic — and I was loath to actually send in stories to this magazine because I was afraid I would not pass muster. [Philippines Free Press published my first short story instead, not counting all the early attempts in Silliman periodicals.] But after a while, I gained enough courage to send in something, and I submitted “Cruising,” a story about a Shakespeare-spouting rent boy in Dumaguete. And then later the news came: Nick Joaquin had died. I thought I lost my chance at being edited [and selected for publication] by the master. It turned out he had accepted it indeed for publication weeks before he died, and I was glad to know that the writer that made me want to write in the first place had a chance to read my fiction and deemed it worthy enough for publication. Winning the NJLA thus feels for me like a kind of coming full circle. Nick Joaquin has always been the supreme inspiration for my writing — and my Philippine Literature students also know that I teach “May Day Eve” with such gusto, endlessly marveling at its inventiveness.
Third: When I continued to read more Filipino works over the years to augment what I taught, to understand where I come from, and to gain more insight to help my own attempts at the craft, there were particular stories that I resonated with, which informed my style and what I wanted to say in my work. Jose Y. Dalisay Jr.’s “In the Garden” was instructive for its magnificent handling of horror, as we witness a teacher in a mountain school struggle to protect his students from the incursions of malevolent soldiers. Susan S. Lara’s “The Reprieve” is a masterclass of emotional restraint even if the story plumbs the chaos in the mind of an old patriarch whose infirmities has brought new indignities. These stories, among a few others, became my paragon. But I also read poetry to better my own fiction, so there’s Marra PL. Lanot, whose poems about women defining and defying their circumstances were instructive in their cutting insights and tantalizing because they were always unafraid to explore all manners of questions and provocations. [Her essays are also wonderful.] I have devoured all their collections, and have been mentored by them in real life, which is a privilege. That they would turn out to be the judges for this year’s NJLA feels humbling; I will always be their student.
And fourth: When I began teaching creative writing for real at Silliman University, one of my greatest joys was founding a writing club in Dumaguete in the late 2000s called LitCritters Dumaguete. A bunch of former students came up to me and asked to be mentored in story writing, so I created the group for them. We met every Saturday, reading and discussing at least three stories to see how they work [or not work], and for every fourth Saturday, we wrote our own stories to be workshopped by all. We were very serious, and those kids competed with each other so hard to come up with fantastic stories. [As a moderator, I was not exempt from also writing my own stuff, to be workshopped by everyone. Those years truly were some of the most productive years in my life as a fictionist.] One of these kids was F Jordan Carnice. And this year, he wins the Poet of the Year Award at the NJLA. So winning with him feels just right for his former teacher!
There are so many people to thank — foremost of all, Philippines Graphic Magazine for continuing this tradition of honoring literature, especially in a time when magazines like it are becoming rarities. So many people also sent me their greetings in the past few days, and I appreciate every word. At this stage of my life, I recognize the importance of gratitude above all. And then there’s Renz, for always knowing what’s best for me and for making me go to Manila [despite my initial plans not to attend the awards program].
Congratulations to the other winners, Criselda Yabes and Richard Giye! Congratulations to all the other finalists!
And thank you to my mother Ceferina, whose life I love to set to fiction. She was the inspiration for this winning work, and deserves all the attention.